Zoo Photography Tips

By Matic Broz, editor-in-chief of Photutorial covering stock media, Adobe, and design. He founded Photutorial while finishing his PhD in computational biosciences.
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While many think of zoo photography as cheating when it comes to wildlife photos, but why shouldn’t you take it as a safe and easy practice before you go to the safari?

A lot of these Zoo photography tips are just different ways of avoiding fences in your photos, and taking photos no one has ever seen, while not disturbing the zoo animals.

Zoo Photography Tips:

#1 Shoot in Shade

If the sun reflects off the fence you’re shooting through, it will show up on your photos. To avoid that, find a shady area and follow the next two tips.

Additionally, you will also avoid sun flares and high contrast scenes, that could single-handedly ruin your zoo photos.

#2 Use a Large Aperture

Use large apertures to shoot through zoo fences. This way, you’ll create a shallower depth of field, so when you focus on a distant zoo animal, your lens will capture the light wrapping around the fence and make it virtually disappear in your photos.

#3 Stand Close to the Fence

When you stand closer to the zoo fence, the shallow depth of field will blur the fence to the point, where it won’t be noticeable anymore.

Of course, don’t break any zoo guidelines, so you don’t disturb the animals or get injured.

#4 Find an Interesting Background

Always pay attention to the background of your photos. Avoid distracting, cluttered, colourful, and unnatural-looking background that take the attention away from the animal.

Distant trees, shrubbery, and plain wall all make a great background as long as you use a shallow enough depth of field, so they lose all the texture.

#5 Get there Early

Photography is all about light, and zoo photography is no different. Some zoos will let photographers enter before other visitors for a small fee, to capture the animals in the best light.

Early in the morning, the animals will also be more relaxed when there are no visitors yet, and as a bonus, you can photograph them waking up. The golden hour light will be well-worth waking up early.

You’ll see, there’s something magical about lion cub waking up and stretching while his mom carefully watches over him.

#6 Patience is Key

A curator at the National Zoo in Washington conducted a study of zoo visitors. He found out that people spent less than eight seconds per snake, up to one minute with the lions. The average time spent at the exhibit was just shy of half a minute.

If you want to take awesome zoo photos, you need to do better than that. Animals are programmed to save energy, so they spend most of the day doing nothing “interesting”.

Take some time, watch the animals, learn their habits – even if you take no good photos, watching animals is a form of meditation. You won’t regret it.

#7 Find a Different Angle

Every visitor takes the same photo: eye-level, right in front of the cage, in poor light. To make your photos stand out of the millions of snapshots, you need to get creative.

Lie down to the ground to photograph animals from below, or find a nice rock or a bench to get a high angle. You can also find some foreground to add depth to the photo, or even give yourself a challenge: make the photo look as if you found the zoo animal in the wild.

#8 Watch out for Copyright

I am no lawyer, but I know that zoos own the rights to their animals, so you cannon and shouldn’t use the photos commercially.

If you want to use the photos for commercial intents, contact the zoo first and ask them about their copyrights and/or contact a photography attorney.

Be careful, so you don’t get sued.

#9 Check for Schedules

A lot of zoos have weekly, monthly, or custom schedules of shows, at which they bring out animals that you cannot see otherwise or are in a special exhibit.

These opportunities are your best chance to get awesome photos of some rarely seen animals.

#10 Use a Monopod

Zoos usually don’t allow tripods as they would take up a lot of space and congest the pathways; however, there are no restrictions for monopods. While these simple accessories don’t work as well as tripods, they are a nice, light-weight replacement that stabilises your camera so you can take sharp photos.

Try this low-cost and high-quality monopod by Manfrotto. (link: https://amzn.to/3fAB26W)

#11 Use a Polarizing Filter

Zoo exhibits are often behind glass so that you can see animals up close. While this gives an unforgettable experience for visitors, it’s a nightmare for photographers, especially when the glass is dirty and outdoors.

To avoid the dirt of the glass, you can use the Zoo photography #1 and use a wide aperture to render it out.

A far bigger problem posed by the glass is reflections. Luckily, you can use a relatively inexpensive polarizing filter, a tool that can easily filter out the unwanted reflections.

I recommend these polarizing filters by Marumi, Lee, and Hoya.

#12 Combine Animals

This is a fairly advanced one, and you won’t find the right setup in every zoo, but in some, cages are close enough to each other, so that you can shoot through several at once.

Challenge yourself to find the perfect angle and timing, to make it look as if animals are in the same cage. To make it work, you will need a good telephoto lens.

Zoo Photography Copyright

I already briefly mentioned zoo copyrights, but I need to elaborate, so you don’t break any laws. I’m not a lawyer, but in my research, I have found the following about the zoo copyrights:

You are allowed to use photos taken at a zoo for personal use. For commercial use, on the other hand, you need to ask the zoo first. They might ask you to either credit them with a mention or pay a small fee.

Regardless, you need to contact them first, so you don’t break any rules and get yourself in trouble.

Zoo Photography Competitions

These are the best zoo photography competitions:

Conclusion | Zoo Photography Tips

As an animal lover, I appeal to you not to disturb the animals. They are often already under a lot of stress due to the limited territory, change of environment, separation from others, and long transportation.

Be respectful to the zoo animals, and try your best to take amazing photos.

– Matic


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